Robert Conquest: Sovietologist and Poet

People cast shadows on a poster with a portrait of the Soviet dictator Josef Stalin during a May Day rally in Volgograd in 2011. (Sergey Karpov/Reuters)
An excerpt from Signatures: Literary Encounters of a Lifetime

Editor’s Note: This week we celebrate the publication of a new book from NR Senior Editor David Pryce-Jones: Signatures: Literary Encounters of a Lifetime, a collection of vignettes of famous authors who over the decades gave him personally inscribed books. In today’s excerpt, David reflects on Robert Conquest, the great historian and Sovietologist (and frequent National Review contributor) who signed a copy of his monumental 1968 history of Stalin’s purges, The Great Terror, for David. Signatures is available for purchase at Encounter Books.

The question with Bob is whether he was a poet who happened to be a Sovietologist or a Sovietologist who happened to be a poet. I tend to think the former, because poetry answered to his view of making whatever there is to be made out of emotions, colors, life itself. Published in 2009 when he was in his nineties, Penultimata contains about a hundred new poems. One of them, “Last Hours,” best expresses the let’s-get-on-with-it Bob that I knew and liked.

Dead in the water, the day is done.
There’s nothing new under the sun,
Still less when it’s gone down.

He and his two closest friends, Kingsley Amis and Philip Larkin, proved their vocation by playing the games with language and perception that poets play, three Musketeers at a time when not much else was disturbing the quiet little cemetery of English literature.

My friendship with Bob goes back to 1963 when he was foreign editor of the Spectator, and I was its literary editor. At the time, the Soviet Union appeared to be gaining the upper hand in the Cold War, and its criminality at home and abroad was a regular subject for discussion with others on the staff, for instance Tony Hartley and Iain Hamilton. It was amazing that so clear-minded a chap (he liked the word) as Bob should ever have joined the Communist Party, what’s more in 1937, which thanks to Stalin was one of the most frightening years in Russian and indeed European history. In 1944 he was posted to Bulgaria as a liaison officer to Bulgarian units fighting under Soviet orders, or to put it bluntly, preparing for a Communist takeover under cover of driving the German army out. After this formative experience, he joined a department of the Foreign Office set up to research the Soviet Union.

Communism was to the 20th century what sorcery had been to the Middle Ages. The claim of the foundational doctrine of Marxism to be a science was pure witchcraft. Something known as the dialectic was said to be the key to progress, but nobody could make sense of this figment. The state was supposed to wither away, leaving us all to look after ourselves as though back in the Garden of Eden, yet in the starkest of contradictions the Communist state granted itself ever more total power over the individual in every aspect of daily life. The organizing principle of class became a sentence of death, exile, or dispossession for tens of millions of men and women defined as bourgeois, capitalist, kulak, or whatever could be profitably exploited.

Bob had spent the Sixties studying Soviet demographic statistics and census returns in order to measure as accurately as possible the drastic fall in population brought about by Stalin’s criminal policies. The Great Terror, published in 1968, was straightforward in language, firm in tone, and careful in depicting the ruthlessness with which Stalin had sent to their death millions of Party members, soldiers from the rank of field marshal downwards, princes and peasants and anyone else whom he judged fit to distrust. Eight years later, on the eve of the Gorbachev era, Bob’s The Harvest of Sorrow was the first fully documented account of the Soviet collectivization of agriculture and the famine deliberately induced in the Ukraine which also cost millions of people their lives. Only when the Soviet Union was reincarnated as Russia did he go there and meet the people whose fate he had brought to the world’s attention.

A mystery of the age is the eagerness with which so many people in the democracies took at face value whatever the Soviet Union said about itself. Suspending their critical faculties, Western Communists and fellow-travelers had no trouble justifying mass murder, subversion, treason, and mendacity. The sophisticated and the unsophisticated alike, the rich and the poor, seemed in a trance, spellbound. It was phenomenal that intellectuals (with old Etonians such as Perry Anderson or Neal Ascherson foremost among them) should be deceiving themselves as much as they were deceiving others.

Two versions emerged of everything that had occurred concerning the Soviet Union. On the one hand, Bob was the leading historian telling the truth about atrocious events, and on the other hand, Eric Hobsbawm was the leading propagandist falsifying these same events. For him, Communism was bound to triumph because the Soviet Union could do no wrong, whether it was invading other countries or oppressing the defenseless. He was skilled at misrepresentation, for instance whitewashing Communism as “a formidable innovation” in social engineering; and simply omitting everything that told against him, for instance the massacre of Polish officers at Katyn or the concentration camps of the Gulag. Bob pointed out that Hobsbawm suffered from a “massive denial of reality” and added very characteristically, “If he chooses to write rubbish, then good luck to him.” David Caute, a friend of mine since Oxford and himself influenced by Marxism, put the issue once and for all in a review: “One keeps asking of Hobsbawm: didn’t you know what Deutscher and Orwell knew? Didn’t you know about the induced famine, the horrors of collectivisation, the false confessions, the terror within the Party, the massive forced labour of the Gulag?” Another Oxford contemporary, however, once asked me how I could bear the company of the well-known fascist Conquest. (Constantine Fitzgibbon, a colleague with a career very similar in war and peace to Bob’s, gave his Sixties collection of anti-Communist essays the ironic title Random Thoughts of a Fascist Hyena.)

In an interview in 1994, Hobsbawm gave away that his high hopes for Communism still had a total hold on him. The astonished interviewer picked him up: “What that comes down to is saying that had the radiant tomorrow actually been created, the loss of fifteen, twenty million people might have been justified?” To which the response was “Yes.” Proven morally corrupt by his own words, and wrong by the course of events, Hobsbawm nonetheless had at least ten honorary doctorates from well-known universities, and received the prestigious Companion of Honour from Prime Minister Blair. Bob had just two honorary doctorates and no civic awards in Britain, though a grateful George W. Bush in the United States did give him the Medal of Freedom.

Towards the end of his life, Bob required the help of Liddie, his solicitous wife. His voice became almost inaudible, his handwriting almost illegible. We would have to gather round closely in the effort to catch what he was saying. Among other things, he felt that the limerick was a literary form with unexplored potential, especially suited for taking pretentious persons down a peg or two, and he protected himself from the libel laws by circulating some of the cleverest of them anonymously. The most-quoted of his limericks is a masterpiece of Sovietology:

There was an old Marxist called Lenin
Who did two or three million men in.
That’s a lot to have done in,
But where he did one in,
That grand Marxist Stalin did ten in.

A Garden of Erses is a collection that came out in 2010, and from the inventive rhyming, humor, and raunchiness it was easy to deduce that Jeff Chaucer, the ostensible author, was really Bob. When eventually all his limericks can be published unexpurgated, they will help to qualify Bob for immortality.


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